Haskin's Derby Trail: Harrington's Leap of Faith

OK, so you don't know anything about Mike Harrington, trainer of Creative Cause, right? Sure you do. You've seen him a million times in one Western movie or another. You know the scene in almost every movie where the stranger rides into town and approaches an old timer leaning back on his chair, whittlin' a piece of hickory, and asks if there's a place a fella get a bath and a shave. The old cowboy, a single strand of straw dangling from his mouth, gives him a wry smile and answers all questions with one of two replies: "yep" and "nope."

Well, to be honest, Harrington is more amicable than that and does supply more information when asked a question...but not a lot more. Unfortunately for Harrington, he is about to become immersed in the media frenzy of the Kentucky Derby whether he likes it or not. After all these years he's got himself a Derby contender and there's nothing he can do about it. Actually, it's his own fault. He wouldn't have to subject himself to all this attention and scrutiny if he hadn't had so much faith in pinhooker Becky Thomas that he would buy a horse from her without even laying eyes on him.

Creative Cause Arrives at Churchill Downs

Creative Cause arrives at Churchill Downs April 28 

Harrington has quietly applied his trade in Southern California since 1992, moving there from the Northwest. He is best known for training Swiss Yodeler, winner of the grade I Hollywood Futurity and four other stakes in 1996. Harrington made a living off Swiss Yodeler and his progeny. At one point, 21 of the 30 horses in his barn were by Swiss Yodeler.

The son of Eastern Echo, who became a successful stallion, siring Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Thor's Echo, has been the crowning achievement for Harrington and owner Heinz Steinmann.

Until now.

For years, Harrington would attend the Barretts 2-year-olds in training sale and would find himself sauntering over to Thomas' barn to look at her horses. Even though Harrington never bought anything from Thomas, as her stock was mostly beyond his price range, she became impressed with the way he managed to point out her best prospects year after year. It was obvious they had the same taste.

Then last year, the 80-year-old Steinmann, who has 11 children and 31 grandchildren, decided to take one last crack at finding a classic type of horse and sent Harrington to the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-olds in training sale at Calder with a fair amount of ammunition. Of course, Harrington headed right over to Thomas' consignment, but this time he came prepared to buy.

"Mike and I have known each other for a very long time, and I've always had a lot of respect for him, because I knew the horses he was picking out were the ones that I liked," Thomas said. "Last year he came to the 2-year-old sale in Miami with an order to buy three horses. He came by the barn and I asked him if he was lost, and he said, ‘No, my guy wants to do this one more time and is looking for three two-turn colts.' I told him I didn't have anything."

Thomas' best horse was a Giant's Causeway colt who she had to scratch from the sale because of a "little bit of a suspensory" that was nagging him and re-entered him in the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale, along with a couple of other horses, including Ever So Lucky.

"I wanted to give him a couple of weeks off without breezing him," Thomas said. "When I told Mike I didn't have anything, he said, ‘That's a shame.' He wound up buying two other horses and he came back to me at the end of the sale and asked me, ‘What do you have at home?' I told him I had three horses back at the farm. One of them was a Giant's Causeway, out of a mare by Siberian Summer (winner of the Strub Stakes). He asked me, ‘What about that horse?' I told him I really liked him, and that I had just put him back in training. He said, ‘And you really like him?' I said, ‘Yes.'

"He asked me what price I was thinking and I told him. He said, ‘I'll take him and my guy will send you a check. Put him on a van and send him to me.' "

Although Thomas was flattered by Harrington's faith in her judgment, she wasn't comfortable selling the colt at that point sight unseen.

"No, I can't do that, Mike," she told him. "I've been down here a week and I want to see him train and make sure everything is all right. I'll tell you what; let me go home and train him for a couple of weeks and if everything is good, I'll put him on one of the planes with the horses going to Barretts."

Thomas added, "I have a lot of respect for Mike, as he does me. Mike never saw the colt and never even had an agent look at him. I told him the colt was doing well, and I took a picture of him with my phone and sent it to Mike and said, ‘Here's your horse, so you'll know him when he gets off the van.'

"I knew he would like him and he did. As he trained him, he continued to like him more and more. The only thing he said was that I had taught him to rear up on hind legs. He's a very feel-good horse and although he was very professional on the track, on the way there it was kind of a rodeo sometimes. But he's matured and has gotten a lot better about that. I call horses like him happy horses. They want to train every day and they're always happy to go to the track and do everything right. They just wait for instructions and they're ready to move on when you ask them; just an auto pilot horse.

"He was smart and professional from the get-go and always very competitive. I knew he'd be a two-turn horse, but he had enough speed and will and talent that I knew he could win early."

Creative Cause and Harrington

Creative Cause 

Thomas admits it was a lot of pressure selling a horse sight unseen for decent bucks, especially to a friend who trusted her judgment with someone else's money.

"Here's a guy who believes in you that you never sold a horse to and he's going to trust you to send him a horse he's never seen," Thomas said. "And he was essentially a lot of money. He was no $30,000 horse. It was a big leap of faith and a lot of pressure for me. Obviously I couldn't guarantee he was going to become a grade I stakes winner and be in the Kentucky Derby, but I believed him to be a really nice horse."

Harrington has kept Thomas updated on the colt's progress throughout his career, and after Creative Cause won the Norfolk Stakes he bought her tickets to the Breeders' Cup to see him run in the Juvenile.

"He's very appreciative and I'm very appreciative," Thomas said. "It's been a great relationship. Mike is really quiet and unassuming and doesn't like all the fanfare that comes with it. He's a really good horseman who's never been in the limelight before. He did have Swiss Yodeler, but this is a big league horse with a big league pedigree. I couldn't be happier for Mike and for Mr. Steinmann. It's been a wild ride."


Leave a Comment:

Dave R.

Great article Steve.  I really liked CCs acceleratiobn on the rail at the top of the SA Derby.

That was a good sign foir me. Good luck to Mike Harrington, Mr Steinmann,and Becky Thomas.

28 Apr 2012 7:52 PM

Love the back stories on these critters....very well written. Thank you!!!

28 Apr 2012 9:50 PM

"they're always happy to go to the track and do everything right."

Steve, I have followed every Dozen you've posted even when I have no time to comment, and unless you see something you don't like this week, I must include Creative Cause in my picks.  I think the statement above says a lot.  Happy to go to the track is a horse who loves his ... not just job, but reason to live.  One of them anyway, and the main one for now.

This is one of the things I have always loved about Mucho Macho Man - that to me he has always been a horse who lives to run, and until the day he learns there are other occupations for him, it is all he does.

Those who do what is asked have much to recommend them, but those who give their all to be first to the finish line regardless are in a different class.

28 Apr 2012 10:10 PM

My favorite kind of Steve Haskin story...the backstory! You always put the "heart" in the sport, Steve.  You nearly have me convinced to believe more in this horse than I have.  You've been on his bandwagon all season long, never wavering, and that kind of loyalty and faith coming from someone with your experience and knowledge makes it worth taking a second look.

A couple of questions:

1. Being that this year's crop is so talented, do you think it will be harder or easier for a long shot to steal the race?


2. Will it be harder or easier for a TC winner to emerge from such a talented group of sophomores?

28 Apr 2012 11:06 PM

Thanks for this very interesting and informative article Mr. Haskin. Great to see a trainer that has beaten as many sunrises as Mike Harrington finally rewarded with such a special horse as Creative Cause. To have come about under such unconventional circumstances reveals to me there is more than luck at play here and perhaps next Saturday the other shoe may just drop. Also points out the tremendous trust and confidence that is oftentimes found in our industry, although there can't be many horses bought sight unseen at this price point. Hopefully they draw a favorable post position and CC settles into a nice stalking position around the clubhouse turn because if he has a chance to make a run at the quarter pole he'll be tough. Beginning to look like he and Rags could fight it out down the stretch.  

28 Apr 2012 11:33 PM

Becky Thomas is an amazing woman and I wouldn't bet against her judgement any day. Thanks for the nice article, good luck to all of those involved with this horse.

29 Apr 2012 9:09 AM
Linda in Texas

"Thomas took a picture of him with her phone to send to Harrington so he would know what his horse looked like coming off the van." Priceless.

Mr. Steinman, 11 children, 36 grandchildren. My goodness, can you imagine what fun their Thanksgiving Dinners are? How nice.

I hope Creative Cause is at his top on Derby Day and that his path opens wide right to the wire! Right beside Hansen and Dullahan and Union Rags.:) i just cannot chose one over the other, love all 20.

It is Sunday morning as i read your article Steve, what a nice one again. And by this time next week we will all be writing about our takes on The Kentucky Derby.

Kudos to the management at Churchill Downs for the super reaction to the blunderous thunderous sudden hail and wind storm that hit just before Race 5. No one was injured. And a super 4 year old handsome grey, Cache Me by Congrats won it.

Hope you are at Churchill Steve, have a wonderful time. Those of us too far away can always count on you to make us feel as though we are right there. Thanks so much.

29 Apr 2012 9:40 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

I like this story and I like Creative Cause.  What a beautiful horse!

29 Apr 2012 10:52 AM

We wish Mike and Patty all the best with their wonderful colt.....from two North westerners, Joyce & Billy

29 Apr 2012 11:06 AM
Stellar Jayne

Beautiful article about the trust between two people.  I especially enjoyed the comments about CC's rodeo and feel good behavior - it brought back memories of Casino Drive and how happy and good he felt in the Belmont paddock prior to winning the Peter Pan.  May Creative Cause experience that feel good behavior in the stampede on Derby Day and come home a winner and sound.

29 Apr 2012 11:15 AM

Great article Steve, as per usual.

When I saw that CC's dam was Dream of Summer who is one of my favorites (hit the board 17 times from 20 starts, $1.1MM+ earnings, 2005 Apple Blossom winner). I knew I found my Derby horse!!!

Good luck and safe trips for all!!!

29 Apr 2012 11:21 AM
Rusty Weisner


Did you talk with Harrington at all about his equipment decision for the Derby and was there any talk about his whip-shy weaving in the stretch the past two?

29 Apr 2012 11:36 AM
Rusty Weisner

Am I misremembering, or were there not a lot of 1:00, :59 works last year leading up to the Derby?

29 Apr 2012 1:00 PM
Karen in Texas

Ms. Thomas describes Creative Cause as smart, professional, happy, and competitive. How could you ask for more in a racehorse? He has proven himself on the track so far, and I wish Team Creative Cause well as they go forward to the Derby. Thanks for another priceless backstory, Steve!

29 Apr 2012 3:05 PM

This horse(creative Cause) is misunderstood....by fans, maybe even his trainer....he isnt shying from whip. He actually IS pretty professional. look how many races hes had....He isnt ducking in and out because he's looking around either.....WHAT IT IS, IS HIS SRTIDE! His back end is really goofy....look at his break from the gate in santa A. derby...he is CROSSFIRING....(his front legs on right lead. hind on left lead) so... this leads to interfering.. he has done this in the stretch before too....most of his races, he changesleads too early coming into the stretch........WHAT TO DO? many times corrective shoeing can correct a stride slightly....also, a pat day/shoe patient ride where the jockey isnt going all over the place(rosario) might help the horse run more balanced in control more effectient stride....(look at the race CC won this year, big hold till end)   NICE HORSE! BUT WEIRD!

29 Apr 2012 4:11 PM
steve from st louis

Steve, you set us up expecting "yep" and "nope" answers but deliver with the kind of "hope" story that is the foundation of every breeder and owner in our industry. Can't believe someone would spend good money on a sight unseen 2-year-old in training, but this is the kind of story that fuels everyone trying to find that needle in a haystack. His dosage index and grey coat trace back to Caro, so he should have no trouble with the 10-furlong distance.

This story validates my belief that an exacta box with he, Bodemeister and Alpha will be a winning ticket come Saturday.

29 Apr 2012 4:15 PM

Loved your story as always, Steve.  How refreshing to read about a mutual respect between two horse people who demonstrate professional trust and integrity.   Then it turns out so well.  How rare is that.

All the commotion and boo-rah-hoo will probably be stressful for Mike Harrington if its not his style, especially the hype associated with the Kentucky Derby.

I wish Mike Harrington, Creative Cause, and his owner the best of luck.  Hope they are able to draw a good post position.  

29 Apr 2012 5:33 PM

Love this stuff!

Thanks, Steve!

29 Apr 2012 8:36 PM
Paula Higgins

Great story Steve. Along with Gemologist and I'll Have Another he is in my three picks for the Derby. Would love to see him pull it off for all of his connections.

29 Apr 2012 10:05 PM

I trained horses for Mr. Steinmann in Northern California in the early 1990's. He's a gentleman's gentleman who loves the game. I'm SO happy he finally got a world class, classic-type horse. What a great story the purchase of this colt is. Both owner and trainer deserved a big shot at the big time and they now have it. The best of luck and you know who I'll be rooting for !!!!!!

29 Apr 2012 11:14 PM
Mary Zinke

My favorite Derby back story.  Very nice to read after finding out about the hoof issue. Hoping that's nothing.

30 Apr 2012 3:33 AM

This beautiful colt should race without a whip or change riders to one who understands that he shies from the whip. Rosario continually pulls out the whip and it has cost this colt at least one victory. I can't understand how a rider cannot see what is plainly happening right in front of him? And why doesn't Harrington pull out the tape and show him what's happening? They keep going back and forth about the blinkers. Forget that nonsense and focus on the question of whip on/whip off. If it's whip off, watch out. I would encourage folks to watch this colt's races, and notice what happens every single time that bone-head goes to the whip. The colt stops running and focusing at the most critical junctures. If Creative Cause is ever ridden correctly, he will beat this kind. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening in the Derby since it hasn't happened at any point this season with the same rider. Good luck to a wonderful colt and wonderful connections. As a side note, I favor stringent whipping restrictions as an industry-wide proposition. The whip does have a safety function which is vital to both horse and rider, but there's no question that - for racing purposes in the stretch - it should be kept to a strict minimum of, perhaps, 3 strikes, if that, and preferably no strikes. Just my opinion, of course.

30 Apr 2012 4:13 AM
Frank J.


Nice article..I'm confused however, I really want CC to be "my" next horse to really get behind but every article I read about him it just seems like they have no confidence in him whatsoever whether it be the whip, or crowding or what have you. Can you describe Mr. Harrington's feelings regarding his chances on Saturday? Thank you.

30 Apr 2012 11:56 AM

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